Mark Fisher’s Magical Voluntarism and Individualist Spiritualism in Japan

Once taking Mark Fisher’s module on Lacanian voice theory at Goldsmiths, I was shocked and saddened by the news of his death. Until that time I did not know that he suffered from depression and wrote about mental illness with the concept of Magical Voluntarism by a British therapist David Smail: “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be” and “the belief that everything, including the material universe itself, is subject to individual will.”

This theory, especially as expressed in the latter phrase, made me realise a connection between the prevailing spiritualism in Japanese society and the individualist tendency seen both in the private and social sphere. To me his Magical Voluntarism amazingly explains the twisted situation that Japanese society is at (although the theory which is largely based on the social class system in the UK would not be immediately applicable to Japanese society): which is, say, collectivist individualism, with which a group of people maintains harmony at its surface in meeting brutal requirements that neoliberalism posits while underneath the smooth plane each individual needs to work on issues not through a collective action or straightforward voicing but the spiritualism that suggests inner workings, which would hardly lead to solutions in the real, societal level.

One might see attributing such a phenomenon to individualism does not make sense, since Japan is known as a country wherein collectivism is highly regarded. Indeed it is. However, take the scale of protest movements and participation in politics after the 60s, for instance. While the country is of one of the largest populations in the world, numbers of participants in protests and activism and poll percentages are deficient. There are hardly any strikes seen although labours are at harsh working conditions. The fear of seclusion from a community due to a positing of a germ of chaos in their harmonious state hinders them from voicing their opinion. In such a way the public transportation is always operated smoothly, and Japanese people maintain their reputation of punctureness. Minimum wage is low, and work conditions are, regardless of industries and fields, poor. Earnest commitments are required at any types of contract even with freelancers and part-timers. The intrinsically beautiful ethics about harmony has become an instrument of the neoliberalist project, turning into an ideological apparatus that drives individualism, separating and disempowering people in a deeper sense.

There are feminist and gender issues involved in this individualist spiritualism. Because of the low-level gender equality, women are still tied up with conservative ‘feminine’ images and roles. ‘Hysteric and undesired (by men) women’ is a stereotypical expression used when one disregards feminists in Japan, and this conception is reflected inside of women. Women, who are supposed to unite and raise claims collectively, rather voluntarily choose to be instrumental in maintaining the harmony (which is believed to be a feminine trait) even keener than men, because such is the very way of their survival. The way to cope with the frustration, since emotion cannot be easily shed, is either blaming others for lack of sense of commitments to given responsibilities or provocative behaviours. Or, they call upon inner works. What is pathetic is that more ethical they are, the more they choose the latter way.

However, as Fisher pointed out, Magical Voluntarism leads to see oneself as the very reason for the unwanted situation they are at, to a “conviction that one is worthless, useless, good for nothing”, and ultimately to depression. This is exactly what has been inscribed in, at least, Japanese mentality perhaps even before neoliberalism arrived. Unemployment is not the biggest issue in Japan. Unlike Europe, there are many job openings, but work condition is too bad to work. The neoliberal project seems to have perfectly worked in this country, harnessing the cultural specificity. However, people are worn out today, and the virtue of hard work is becoming that of the past mentality. I have seen many individuals who left the job for their depressive tendency and did not go back to work sooner–even though they could–taking a year off or so. With the decline in the youth population, as well as numbers of those who are willing to sacrifice their lives, the job market just began suffering labour shortages.

Fisher recommended redeveloping class consciousness as a practical and ‘formidable’ solution for solidarity in generating ‘winnable actions’. Such an account would not immediately applicable to the case in Japan where class consciousness, as it is almost entirely abolished, cannot serve as such an agency to reconnect people. What formed the sense of collectiveness in postwar Japan was not the economic class in the American model, but private corporations that provided lifetime employment. However, it is becoming more and more impossible to belong to companies for the cuts of both permanent and full-time positions. The workplace without providing senses of belongings has become a ‘hostile public space’.

Someone who moves out of the social sphere they are ‘supposed’ to occupy is always in danger of being overcome by feelings of vertigo, panic and horror: “…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.” as Fisher quotes in ‘Good for Nothing’ in Occupied Times

What we need to do for the sake of better life, both physically and mentally, is definitely to revive or develop collectivism and collective action by ‘converting privatised dissatisfaction into politicised anger’. But the question is: how can we achieve it without calling upon formative measures such as the class system or social units that gave people senses of collectivity in the past which, however, no longer exists in this country?

Getting out of chains of inner workings and taking practical, political measures is without doubt the way out of the miserable state, but we should start from becoming more aware that we have terrible individualist tendency–although it is shaped by the contemporary capitalism–of prioritising one’s competitiveness for the sake of survival while looking harmonious and generous, which in reality has impaired our living condition. Peace at any cost is not only a self-harming policy but also destructive to the collectivity.

Mark Fisher ‘Good For Nothing’ in Occupied Times
‘A reply to Mark Fisher on magical voluntarism’ by sometimes explode

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One Comment

  1. […] the previous post Mark Fisher’s Magical Voluntarism and Individualist Spiritualism in Japan, I addressed our need of a new, and revised, means of collectivity in this country where the sense […]



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